© Rabbi David L. Kline http://good-to-be-a-jew.blogspot.com/
When it comes to conveying culture, and, in particular, religion, nothing approaches the effectiveness of stories. Anecdotes entertain and leave an impression. We are ready to hear about ancestors or current events, real or imaginary, and we come away thinking.
Imagine reading or listening to that story of brotherly hate, Kayin and Hevel, commonly (and, unfortunately, obscuring etymology) referred to as “Cain and Abel.” “As is,” we come away wondering about God, about family, about anger, about life and death. But the rabbis, intent on applying Torah to their world, told the story differently: there was something wrong with Kayin’s offering or perhaps his attitude. God was right to reject such a gesture in favor of his brother’s. Kayin did not suffer capital punishment because no one had taught him not to murder. The rabbis, (the teachers, beginning in the century before the Common Era) following Aesop, liked stories to have a moral, so, they commented on the stories and added details: midrash (מדרש, meaning “interpretation,” from the root דרש, “searching” for meaning). Over millennia of telling, midrash became better known to Jews than Tanach, but there is literary and moral value in the unadorned work of our early ancestors and that is what I favor in this essay.
For the early rabbis, Tanach was–and for many, still is–accepted as word of God, communicated via inspired individuals. In contemplating any line, plain reading–they called it p’shat, פשט, “simple”–took into account that every word is weighty, ultimate, and correct. P’shat implies and invites midrash. Utilizing midrash, homey and ahistorical, the rabbis framed Judaism as we know it, a leap forward from the sacrificial cult of Tanach times.
Those of us who are skeptical, agnostic, or deniers of revelation are nevertheless interested in Tanach. It is, after all, our story. The terms p’shat and midrash serve to introduce us to the rabbis and their pious thinking about the ancient words. We need a term by which to refer to the text as written, a prerabbinic approach to what was meant by the authors and understood by their audience. I suggest pashut, פשוט, the common Hebrew word for “simple,” in place of the Aramaic p’shat preferred by the rabbis. When we read pashut we can be open minded as to whether these are the words of God or words about God. We can feel free to agree or disagree, to approve or disapprove, to accept or reject.
It is, of course, not simple for us to reach back over the millennia to the pashut. Tanach is nearly the sole document we have for the period between roughly 1500 and 200 BCE from our people in its land. Ancient Babylonia, where scribes wrote on clay, has libraries full of documents, literary, legislative, business, family records, so we know more about its historical events, culture, language and literary development. Babylonian writings shed some light on Tanach. Reading material from a decade or a century ago can be difficult because we are distant from the context. Hoping to grasp truly ancient writing is a stretch. Hence the helpful hypothesis.
Traditional belief held–and still holds, for many–that the Five Books of Moses are God’s word to that leader. Critical reading (as in critical thinking) gave rise, beginning a couple of centuries ago, to the Documentary Hypothesis that Torah was composed late in the period of the monarchy and during and after the Babylonian exile. The great 8th century BCE prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, preceded and influenced the writing. Deuteronomy is the first Sefer Torah to appear, towards the end of the 7th century (see 2 Kings 22:8). The narratives of Genesis and Exodus, rooted in oral tradition, were written into documents in the 10th century but not “published” till the 5th century, along with the legislative chapters of Torah (see Ezra’s presentation, Nehemiah 8:1-8). Lacking signed manuscripts and corroborating evidence, the hypothesis remains unproven but it makes sense of the received text.
Midrash is the standard and familiar way of telling Tanach. By contrast, a critical approach takes us to an earlier stage and opens us to behaviors and ideas that help us know ourselves. Here are two readings of the Akedah, the “Binding of Yitschak,” one of the most challenging narratives in Tanach (Genesis 22).
Avraham, our founding father, receives a call from God, Who is testing him, to make a burnt offering of Yitschak his son. The father is willing and nearly completes the act when word comes to desist. Such exemplary behavior led to the selection of the story as the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Midrash richly adds to the story–by way of illustration, two points, first: Yitschak participates in the obedience as indicated by the repetition (verses 6,8) in the story of the two of them walking “together.” Yitschak asks for the “binding” out of fear that he not lie completely still for the neat and quick slaughtering stroke necessary for a proper offering. Second: God tested Avraham (cf: Job) the way God tests each of us, but more severly. Avraham passed the test and God rewarded him with a blessing. How many sermons, essays, books have been written about the spiritual height of total devotion, submission, and obedience? About the virtue of one generation ready to sacrifice the lives of the next generation for a higher value? Without such a virtue how could nations make war with one another?
For the critical reader this is a legend in which two literary elements stand out. First, the assumption, for purposes of the story, that God issued explicit commands to the ancients. In the author’s time, only prophets–specialists, professionals–could claim to hear directly from God. The narrator is further willing to portray Avraham as experiencing something that no contemporary–of the author–could legitimately claim, namely a divine demand for a human sacrifice, filicide.
Second, this is a story of non-compliance with what may have been, in the eyes of our storied founder, a demonstration of devotion–a misguided demonstration, because either it was only a test or it was a mistaken assumption on the part of Avraham. One can appreciate the words from on high as a device used by the author to justify the outlandish act. Child sacrifice was not unheard of in the first and second millennia BCE, and our author may have based his short story on an oral tale.
Deuteronomy (12:30f, 18:10) and Leviticus (18:21, 20:3) refer to child sacrifice as the hateful practice of pagans, to other gods. The Akedah story may have served to teach that God does not really want human sacrifice, that animal sacrifice suffices. The founding father can be understood as primitive in his response to the test. He may have passed and been rewarded, but for any of us to respond in kind would be to fail the test. Rosh Hashanah is a sensitive moment and a story can be particularly effective. It is important to choose how we tell it.
In an essay on the Genesis creation stories, “The First Week” and “The Garden of Eden,” I argue that the two express differing worldviews. The former sees the world as orderly, purposeful, and perfect. The latter sees chaos and error with, nevertheless, an imminent, hands on deity. The old stories are pleasurable and memorable. Without buying into ancient thinking we can delight in our ancestors’ efforts to explain the world as they knew it. Their metaphors still hold up, e.g. “Let there be light,” “Garden of Eden.” Their conceptions of reality stand with the best of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks. (http://good-to-be-a-jew.blogspot.com/2008/01/looking-twice-at-world-rabbi-david-l.html).
The rabbis were (and mostly still are) committed to preserving the patriarchs, Moshe, Kings David and Sh’lomo, Eliahu and a few other prophets as sacred heroes of morality, models for oncoming generations. During a brief sojourn as student at Y’shivat Mir in Jerusalem, my instructor, himself a kolel (“graduate”) student, described Avraham as the saintliest of saints. Every succeeding generation became a degree less saintly, so that today our best rank low next to such giants of goodness. A line in Deuteronomy reads like a precursor of the rabbis, saying that God rewarded the nation for the merit of their patriarch (9:4-6). Midrash promotes humility.
Pashut readers of the narrative, on the other hand, will find themselves in the world of ancestors, confronting them as if they were living characters. It’s like reading a travel book, with some scenes charming, others inhospitable, some folks friendly, others threatening. It’s like reading a historical novel about our family. And telling the stories this way makes you a colleague of the long ago author.